If A.O.C. Is So Heavily Favored, Why Has Her Race Drawn $30 Million?


All the money in the world is not likely to influence the outcome of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s re-election bid in November.

But that has not stopped people from trying: The contest has improbably become the second most expensive House race in the country.

Money has been pouring in from all sides. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, has raised $17.3 million, much of it from small donors attracted to her star power, progressive policies and outsize social media presence.

Her Republican challenger, John Cummings, a 60-year-old former schoolteacher at St. Raymond High School for Boys in the Bronx and a former officer for the New York Police Department, has collected $9.6 million in his first bid for office.

His campaign war chest exceeds all but a dozen or so House incumbents. He has a donor list any fund-raiser would envy. And over the last three-month reporting period, Mr. Cummings actually took in more money than Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, raising $5.5 million to her roughly $4 million.

The contest is such a magnet for money that even Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC anchor who lost to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary but will be on the ballot representing the Serve America Movement, has raised $2.4 million and lent her campaign another $1 million.

The torrent of donations is the latest example of how Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, 31, has become a draw for Republican candidates to seek donors based off resentment of her.

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“I guarantee you 75 percent of his contributors don’t know anything about him,” Tom Doherty, a Republican strategist, said of Mr. Cummings. “I don’t know anything about him except that he’s running against A.O.C. The people that are interested in that race financially are giving because it’s A.O.C.”

The big-money contest is also a reflection of how a spotlight race can fuel millions of dollars to favored political strategists and causes, sometimes far removed from the actual candidates.

Mr. Cummings has made heavy digital and cable advertising buys, blanketing his district, which covers parts of Queens and the Bronx, and even some areas outside it. He has hired consultants like Lincoln Strategy Group, an Arizona-based firm whose founder, Nathan Sproul, a longtime Republican operative, has faced fraud accusations over the years.

Mr. Cummings has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers, hiring Big Dog Strategies, whose clients include the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to helping Republicans win a majority in the House, and America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC.

He has also hired Smart Media Group, a Virginia firm that works closely with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to handle multiple six-figure media ad buys and placements.

The campaign spent $560,000 on Facebook ads over the last three months, according to Facebook’s ad library, a public database of all ads on its platform. An overwhelming majority of the campaign’s contributors are from outside of New York.

“Long term, this race doesn’t help you build the party that I think we need,” Mr. Doherty said. “That’s not a race that we’re going to win, but that’s where we are at in American politics today.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has also spent heavily on Facebook ads, buying $1.6 million worth in the last 90 days. Part of the ad buy is geared toward building her own small-donor network to avoid having to rely on Facebook, which Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has criticized for not fact-checking political advertisements, according to her campaign.

She has also spent campaign funds to support an effort to get New Yorkers to fill out the census and to distribute meals to New Yorkers struggling financially because of the pandemic. One digital advertisement Ms. Ocasio-Cortez ran about census participation in September had 2.1 million views.

“We ensure that our fund-raising yields real investments into the community beyond transactional politicking,” said Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.

Just in the last two weeks, Mr. Cummings’s campaign has spent more than $2.4 million, while Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign spent $614,000.

Mr. Cummings has used his ads to introduce himself to voters as someone who has lived and worked in the Bronx for decades, suggesting that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was an outsider who attended schools in Westchester County. He criticized her for opposing Amazon locating a second headquarters in Queens.

Mr. Cummings is trying to appeal to moderate Democrats, whom he calls “Joe Crowley Democrats,” a reference to the former high-ranking Democratic leader whom Ms. Ocasio-Cortez defeated in an upset primary victory in 2018.

“She has done an unbelievable job of creating a national persona for herself but has neglected the district,” Mr. Cummings said in an interview.

Chapin D. Fay, Mr. Cummings’s campaign manager, acknowledged that an upset was still unlikely, given the district’s overwhelmingly Democratic composition, but he suggested that his candidate’s fund-raising totals underscored how polarizing Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is among voters.

“I just sensed that national fund-raising against someone like A.O.C. would be successful,” Mr. Fay said. “I can’t take credit for knowing it was going to be this successful, but we knew he would be able to put a few bucks together to run a race.”

Mr. Fay, who previously served as the press secretary and director of public affairs for Gov. George E. Pataki, has also benefited from the flow of donations. Lighthouse Public Affairs, a company founded by Mr. Fay, collected tens of thousands of dollars for managing the campaign and handling local media buys.

Mr. Cummings, who said he supports President Trump and defended his much criticized response to the coronavirus pandemic, has not focused on the president, who is deeply unpopular in his hometown.

He said he plans to continue meeting voters on the street until Election Day because he believes there may be a local undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.

“They dislike her, they dislike what the hard left stands for and they appreciate what I’m doing,” he said. “If we close strong, I think we can pull this race off.”

Mr. Cummings said he has requested a debate but does not expect his opponent to agree to one. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign said it had received one last-minute debate invitation from a “third party moderator,” but she was committed elsewhere.

“To be fair,” Mr. Cummings said, “no one wants to debate a high school civics teacher.”



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